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Australian government cover-up mental health of children asylum seekers

Children entering detention on Christmas Island. Source: ABC

Children entering detention on Christmas Island. Source: ABC

When I was in Kulala Lumpur in January I spoke with a Burmese refugee whose 14 year old nephew is detained on Christmas Island. The man was happy that his nephew has a chance of being repatriated in Australia but I feared for the boy’s safety and mental health. The Australian Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs inspected the Christmas Island detention centre last week as part of a national inquiry into the mandatory detention of children seeking asylum in Australia. Professor Triggs says conditions have worsened markedly since her last visit four months ago. There are 1,102 asylum seekers in the centre, including 174 children, and Professor Triggs says she and her team interviewed hundreds of detainees over three days. Many of the child asylum seekers are wetting the bed and some developing severe speech impediments and having flashbacks.

Almost all of them, including the adults, were coughing, were sick, were depressed, unable to communicate, were weak. Some of them [are] not leaving their cabins, are not eating.

This week peak Australian medical bodies spoke againstreported an Australian Immigration Department cover up of data showing the extent of mental health concerns among young detainees. An inquiry is examining the conditions of detention – especially on Christmas Island – the safety of children on Nauru, along with mental health assessments and the impact of long-term detention on children.

  • Psychiatrist Peter Young said in recent weeks the Immigration Department instructed him to withdraw data showing elevated mental health issues among the children and young people in the centres on Christmas Island and Nauru. Dr Young was the director of mental health services at detention centre service provider International Health and Mental Services (IHMS) for three years until July 2014.
  • Dr Young told the inquiry that 128 cases of child detainees committing acts of self-harm have been reported in the past 15 months, not including cases on Nauru. Self harm included attempts to poison themselves or ingest harmful substances, and banging heads against walls is common.
  • Dr John Paul Sanggaran spent time working on Christmas Island in 2013 and said that children with complex medical problems cannot be treated on Christmas Island as there are no child psychologists, paediatricians or specialised children’s mental health services. After his time on Christmas Island Dr Sanggaran co-authored 92 pages of complaints with 14 of his colleagues.
  • Dr Sanggaran said detainees’ glasses, hearing aids and medications were taken when they arrived on the island and mentioned one case of a three-year-old girl suffering epilepsy whose medication was taken from her when she arrived at Christmas Island. The child started having seizures and medication was ordered from the mainland but that ran out and the seizures returned.
  • Kirsty Diallo, who worked for Save the Children in Nauru in 2013, told the inquiry of inappropriate behaviour by guards who stroked girls’ hair, and made them sit on their laps. She said there was nothing to prevent child abuse in detention on Nauru, as there was no local child protection legislation, and no working with children checks.
  • “If we were seeing this on mainland Australia, in our community, it would be absolutely not accepted – questions would be asked immediately, social services would be involved, litigation would be involved,” RACGP’s chair of refugee heath Dr Christine Boyce said.
  • A former immigration department employee, Gregory Lake who worked on Nauru, told the inquiry that he was conditioned to calling detainees “clients” to strip them of any hope and dehumanise those held in detention. He was told by the Immigration Minister’s office to select children that looked the youngest to be part of the first transfer to Manus Island to send a message of deterrence. He said that occurred contrary to criteria from the Papua New Guinea government that children under seven years old could not be transferred because they could not be inoculated against malaria and Japanese encephalitis.
  • The Australian Churches Refugees Taskforce has described the Federal Government’s treatment of unaccompanied children seeking asylum as “state-sanctioned child abuse“.

Immigration Department secretary Martin Bowles told the inquiry that 17 children were transferred from Christmas Island to Nauru in the last two months. The department’s deputy secretary Mark Cormack told the inquiry that asylum seekers are now spending on average 350 days in off-shore Australian detention camps.

The first ray of hope since the Australian hardline government implemented mandatory off-shore processing and detention for asylum seekers one year ago is the decision by Mr Morrison to issue a permanent visa to one 15 year old refugee who arrived by boat. This follows the minister’s determined, but so far unsuccessful, efforts to reintroduce temporary protection visas for unauthorised arrivals. After the senate rejected TPVs, the minister imposed an effective freeze on the granting of permanent protection visas to about 1,400 asylum seekers who had already been found to be refugees, with many thousands more claims still to be assessed. After the court ruled last month that the freeze on visas was unlawful, Mr Morrison said: “The Coalition government will not be providing permanent visas to illegal boat arrivals.”


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